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Vaccines: Risk vs. Reward

Vaccines in vials

The use of vaccines has prevented death and disease in millions of animals. A vaccine is a health product designed to trigger a protective immune response in our pets and farm animals if and when they come in contact with these highly contagious and deadly diseases.

The judicious use of vaccines has made once common diseases and infections uncommon, however most of these agents still persist in the environment. Many vaccines are now available to the consumer which may cause confusion. Vaccine programs should be customized to a patient’s needs weighing the potential risks of vaccination against the potential for exposure.

The overall rate of vaccine adverse reactions within 3 days of vaccination has been determined to be 0.48% in cats and 0.38% in the dog. Most common reactions are rather nonspecific including anorexia (not-eating), lethargic, fever or local soreness.

Mild reactions usually respond to antihistamines and corticosteroids. Severe reactions may require hospitalization and aggressive therapy with your veterinarian.

The risk of a vaccine reaction decreases significantly as the body weight of the pet is increased. Vaccines in the dog are given at a one dose fits all basis; this means a Great Dane would receive the dose of vaccine given to a 5-pound toy poodle. Not surprisingly the 5 poodle would be more likely to incur a reaction to vaccination. Vaccine reactions were also shown to increase significantly with the number of vaccine doses given concurrently at one time. A genetic predisposition to vaccine reactions has also been documented for some particular breeds of dogs.

General recommendations for decreasing the possibility of vaccine reaction regardless of species includes:

  1. Vaccinating only healthy animals that have gone through a comprehensive examination
  2. Premedicating with antihistamines
  3. Separating the number of vaccines given
  4. Limiting vaccination to those vaccines that the pet is at risk for exposure
  5. Vaccinating early in the day when veterinary assistance is available


  • “Feline Adverse Vaccine Reactions”. The Compendium for Continuing Education for Veterinarians. Merial Limited. Vol. 29(10) October 2007. Pp.610 and 611.
  • “About Vaccination.” Insight Companion Animal Edition. April 2016. Pp. 20-21.
  • “Vaccine Adverse Events”. Antech Diagnostics News. October 2007.
  • Kahn, Cynthia Editor. The Merck Veterinary Manual. 9th Edition. 2005. p. 637.
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